Last month, China Construction Bank (CCB) opened the first fully-automated bank branch in China.

Located on Jiujiang Road in downtown Shanghai, the ground-breaking bank branch operates entirely without human tellers. It joins an increasing number of retail outlets, restaurants and other venues across China – and the world – where humans are served exclusively by robotic assistants.

The question of whether robots will take over all of our jobs has been hotly debated over the past several decades – a debate which has recently intensified thanks to advances in artificial intelligence.

Partial automation is already widespread in the service industry, with touch-screen checkouts, kiosks and ordering systems an increasingly common sight in shops and restaurants.

Now, we’re seeing the rise of outlets which operate entirely without human interaction – though in the case of China Construction Bank, they are still well-staffed with security guards.

The retail industry has been a hotbed for this kind of innovation: Amazon made waves in 2016 with its cashier-less grocery store, Amazon Go, which has now officially opened to the public in Seattle, with additional branches slated to open in Chicago and San Francisco.

In China, numerous companies are trialling lower-tech versions of the same concept, combining biometric identifiers (facial recognition, or walking gait) with mobile payments to enable customers to buy items without a human cashier. Elsewhere across the country, restaurants have experimented with robot waitstaff, and train stations are serviced by robot attendants.

If this continues, what will the gradual disappearance of human customer service representatives from businesses mean for customer experience?

As automation expands into more customer-service-intensive sectors like banking, will the potential increase in efficiency be offset by a decrease in customer satisfaction? Will brands be facing a trade-off between appearing cutting-edge and losing the personal touch?

The impact of automation on customer experience

The advent of automated grocery stores and now, bank branches, has been hailed as revolutionary by many. And with so many of our everyday activities like shopping or banking already carried out online, without the need for human interaction, the idea of doing the same thing in a physical branch isn’t too hard for customers to adapt to.

Liang Min, a young salesman and customer of China Construction Bank, told EJ Insight that automated bank branches “will be the trend of the future”.

“For myself, I conduct all my banking affairs online and through machines,” he said. “I do not need people, just as I almost do not need cash. Many young people are like me.”

However, Liang added that older people he knew were struggling to adapt to the technology. “My parents and older people find the machines bewildering and want to see real people.”

In addition to being confused by or distrustful of the new technology, older customers are more likely to have access needs that a machine would have more difficulty adapting to, such as needing things repeated or explained more simply, or having hearing or visual impairments.

Ageing populations are a huge and pressing problem around the world, with the percentage of the global population aged 65 and over projected to reach 17% by 2050 (it currently sits at around 8.5%) – making this an important consideration for automated systems.

For China’s elderly, the rise of robots can also come with a language barrier. Wang Weiling, an elderly Shanghainese woman, told EJ Insight that she prefers to interact with human staff at the bank because “the robot in this branch speaks only Mandarin. I prefer to talk Shanghainese.”

With hundreds of different local dialects spoken across China – mostly by the elderly – this could also prove a genuine problem if automated bank branches are implemented at scale.

Automation isn’t all bad news for customer experience. But it comes with a few double-edged swords, most notably around privacy and security, and efficiency and empathy.

Data collection, privacy and security

Using interconnected, automated systems in place of people has significant implications for both privacy and security. A system like Amazon Go has the opportunity to collect vast amounts of behavioural data on Amazon’s consumers, as Nikki Gilliland explains in her article, ‘What can marketers learn from Amazon Go’s customer experience?

“For the first time ever, Amazon Go means consumers will waive their right to privacy while shopping in person. From what we put back on the shelf to the route we take while walking around the store – this information is all up for grabs.”

More data on customer habits can be beneficial to improving the customer experience through personalisation, but as Nikki cautions, brands mustn’t go overboard.

“From a marketing perspective, there is the temptation to over-egg personalisation to the point of being creepy. As a result, issues over consumer privacy could potentially be [their] downfall.”

And with large-scale cybersecurity breaches increasingly making headlines, the potential consequences of a breach could be even more catastrophic, and damaging to consumer trust. Security and trust are important components of a positive customer experience, so brands that implement automation will need to give extra consideration to security concerns.

Efficiency versus emotional connection

Customers like a seamless, efficient brand experience, particularly when it comes to tedious tasks like grocery shopping and banking. Automation certainly promises to deliver, allowing customers to do what they need to and get out without too much forced brand interaction.

As Nikki Gilliland points out, this is the antithesis of many marketing strategies, but the success of companies like Uber and Airbnb show how successful a “hands-off” approach to customer interaction can be.

The downside of this is the removal of the human side to brand interactions. As humans we crave emotional connections with other human beings, particularly in the kinds of high-stress situations that lead us to deal with customer service.

While the odd automated grocery store or bank branch won’t make a huge difference to our emotional states, if automation is rolled out on a wider scale across customer service, our satisfaction with brands could suffer.

And what of the impact on brand reputation? Robots might have a reduced capacity for making mistakes, but do they make good brand ambassadors?

That might depend on what kind of impression brands want to leave on the customer. If it’s important to your brand to appear forward-thinking and innovative, by all means staff your branches with robot representatives. But if your brand is one that prides itself on having a human touch, you’ll probably want to give them a miss.

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The empathy economy?

All of this might seem like a far-off eventuality, but Amazon Go, China Construction Bank and businesses like them are the sign of things to come.

A recent report by McKinsey Global Institute, ‘A future that works: Automation, employment, and productivity’, estimated that around half of all the activities people are paid to do in the world’s workforce could potentially be automated using existing technologies.

In particular, the report identified manufacturing, accommodation and food service, and retail trade as the sectors most vulnerable to automation, adding that medium- and high-skill roles are at risk of automation as well low-skill, low-wage work.

For customer service, though, there might be a silver lining. Writing for Business Insider, Loup Ventures’ Doug Clinton put forward an interesting take in which he posited that customer service specialists will become “the new rock stars of the technology industry”.

Because empathy is a uniquely human skill, it will likely become all the more valuable in an increasingly automated world.

This, Clinton argues, will create new opportunities for monetisation, resulting in the creation of an “empathy economy” where services that augment and build human empathy can be bought and sold.

In other words: if your automated business has a less-than-stellar customer experience, you may be able to invest in some additional empathy from the Empathy Marketplace.

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